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Francona happy to be back in Indians' camp

Skipper returns after attending father's funeral in Pennsylvania
MLB.com @MLBastian

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Terry Francona said his father never quite understood why the nickname made it to a second generation. Tito is what the elder Francona was called since his youth, and it is now what friends and family, and even players in the clubhouse, often use for the Indians' manager.

"Because I care about my dad so much," Terry Francona said, "I always took it as a compliment."

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Terry Francona said his father never quite understood why the nickname made it to a second generation. Tito is what the elder Francona was called since his youth, and it is now what friends and family, and even players in the clubhouse, often use for the Indians' manager.

"Because I care about my dad so much," Terry Francona said, "I always took it as a compliment."

Little Tito was back with his team on Sunday, following the funeral of his dad, John Patsy "Tito" Francona, on Saturday in New Brighton, Pa. Tito, who suited up for the Indians from 1959-64, died at his home on Tuesday night. He was 84. That created a somber tone to the early portion of Spring Training around the team's complex.

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Terry Francona stayed for his team's first official workout on Thursday before flying home to Pennsylvania for the services. Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and Brad Mills, Francona's longtime bench coach and friend, traveled with the manager. Antonetti got to know Francona's dad well over the past five years, while Mills knew him since his day's as a teammate of Terry's at the University of Arizona.

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"He was a special individual," Antonetti said. "He was universally respected, liked and admired. Every time he walked into a room, he had a smile and an infectious energy. You couldn't help but enjoy the time with him."

All around the complex on Sunday, the nickname was present again when Terry Francona returned.

"Welcome back, Tito."

"Good to see you, Tito."

Francona smiled when asked about how the moniker came about. It dates to his grandfather, Carmen, who began calling his son that when he was young. Terry Francona said it has its roots in Italian and that -- the way it was explained to him -- it referred to a little kid with a lot of energy who was kind of in the way.

"Not always complimentary," Francona said with a laugh.

Tweet from @MLBastian: With morning bullpen sessions complete, Millsie and Carl Willis hold a meeting, while manager Terry Francona looks on. pic.twitter.com/KRCpthVt4X

Francona cherishes his memories with his dad, but said he is especially grateful for the past five years.

Tito Francona only spent six years of his career in a Cleveland uniform, but he quickly became a fan favorite. He nearly won a battting title in 1959 -- the year Terry was born -- and was an American League All-Star in '61. Tito was at the media conference when his son was named the 42nd manager in club history before the 2013 season. In the years since, he watched as many games as he could, called his son often and made the drive from New Brighton when he could take in games in person.

Tito threw out the ceremonial first pitch in the Indians' first playoff game in 2016, when they came one win shy of the franchise's first World Series title since 1948. He was the first person to call Terry Francona when the Tribe clinched the pennant that year, and Little Tito badly wanted to win it all not only for the city, but given his father's ties to the organization.

Video: Justice discusses Tito Francona Sr.'s legacy

"Cleveland's as close to family, a familial feeling, as you can get in a professional setting for him and myself," Francona said. "My son did kind of a eulogy [Saturday] and he mentioned that, like what a fitting way to kind of wind down your life, being that happy."

Over the past several days, Francona has tried to return every message left from people who knew his dad. He was overwhelmed by the notes that flooded in.

"When you play for nine teams and you're a good guy," Francona said, "you're going to know a lot of people."

There will be more messages to send and stories to tell, but Francona was glad to be reunited with his team on Sunday. Francona grew up in a big league clubhouse -- it was his dad's teammates who dubbed him "Little Tito" long ago -- and that remains where he is most comfortable.

There is another season at hand. Terry knows Tito would not want his him to be distracted by anything else.

"It's so nice to be back," Francona said. "I went back for two days to be with my family and then I came back here to kind of be with my family. ... I care about the game, I respect the game, I love the game, because of my dad. I guarantee you that. He taught me to care about baseball so deeply. I got that right from him."

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook.

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